Turkey can persuade Hamas to opt for peace

From a Turkish perspective, Israel could not have committed a worse mistake than attacking Gaza and thereby blocking hopes for peace in the Middle East. Like many observers, Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed Israel for the human tragedy in Gaza. This response may not seem extraordinary if one remembers that he criticized Israel in the same way following earlier Israeli aggressions in the occupied territories. This time, however, Erdogan stated that the Israeli attack on Gaza, which began four days after PM Ehud Olmert’s visit to Ankara, was "an act of disrespect toward Turkey".

The major issue on the agenda for Olmert’s visit had been the Turkish-led indirect talks between Israel and Syria. In response to the latest Israeli attack, Erdogan suspended the talks and departed for Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to search for a solution to the Gaza situation. He also talked to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Erdogan addressed the international community before his visit to Egypt, saying that "the Palestinian and Gazan people, our brothers, can only be saved from their isolation when these embargoes are lifted." Erdogan’s response to Israel, his suspension of Syrian-Israeli negotiations and his Middle East shuttle diplomacy reflect a high level of Turkish involvement in the Palestinian question.

Thus, Turkey has initiated an intensive diplomatic campaign at both the regional and international level to put an end to the Gaza tragedy. Turkey’s position is to include Hamas in the political process; Erdogan aims to persuade Hamas to return to a truce in exchange for Israel lifting the blockade of Gaza, and Turkish policy-makers have asked Hamas to declare a ceasefire and work for the political accommodation of different groups within Palestinian politics. Ahmet Davutoglu, the chief foreign policy aide to Turkey’s prime minister, has met twice in Syria with Khaled Mishaal, the leader-in-exile of Hamas. Davutoglu’s second visit came as a result of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s demand for help from Erdogan. In this sense, Turkey has already begun to mediate between Hamas and international actors while maintaining regular contacts with Fateh, the Palestinian Authority and Abbas.

Erdogan’s active diplomacy, aimed at preventing further tragedy in Gaza, coincides with Turkey’s assumption of a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Erdogan welcomed the Arab League’s call to lobby for a UN ceasefire resolution. Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Babacan attended the extraordinary meeting of the foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference on January 3, 2009. The Turkish secretary-general of the OIC, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, called for immediate international action to put an end to Israeli aggression in Gaza. And before departing from Saudi Arabia, Erdogan added: "Hamas abided by the truce. But Israel failed to lift the embargoes. In Gaza, people seem to live in an open prison. In fact, all Palestine looks like an open prison. I am calling out to the whole world: why do you not display the same sensitivity you showed in Georgia, now in Gaza? The United Nations, the United States and the EU-member states mobilized for Georgia immediately. But now, no one takes action for Gaza."

Erdogan’s critical response led to a phone conversation between President Abdullah Gul and his Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres. Gul released a written statement after this conversation, expressing concern for the political and humanitarian situation in Gaza, underlining the need for supplying humanitarian aid and calling for an immediate ceasefire. The Turkish National Security Council expressed deep concern over the deaths of high numbers of Palestinians in the Israeli operation in Gaza. The NSC issued its own statement calling for an immediate end to military operations and the lifting of barriers so that humanitarian aid might be delivered to the Palestinian people in Gaza, and urged the consideration of diplomacy for a solution. The statement added that the Palestinians should reach a compromise among themselves as soon as possible. The NSC statement exemplifies the broad consensus on the Palestinian issue in Turkey.

Turkey has a two-stage plan for dealing with the Gaza situation. The first phase is to broker a ceasefire and provide supervision by international peacekeepers, including Arab and Turkish forces. The second is to achieve compromise between rival Palestinian groups to stabilize Palestinian politics and ensure a commitment to peace.

Erdogan is working to build bridges among the Arabs to create a common stance toward the Palestinian question. Arab intellectuals in major Arab dailies praised Turkish activities on Gaza’s behalf and asked Erdogan to remind Arab leaders that the Palestinian cause is also an Arab issue.

Turkish diplomatic activities continued after Israel announced a unilateral ceasefire. Davutoglu pursued shuttle diplomacy between Damascus and Cairo while foreign ministry bureaucrats were talking to Israeli counterparts in Jerusalem. Turkish diplomats played a key role in persuading Hamas to announce a ceasefire.

Turkey adopted a severely critical attitude against the Israeli government’s Gaza offensive and urged Israel to talk to Hamas to reach a solution. This critical attitude led to crisis in a panel discussion on Israel’s Gaza offensive at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Erdogan, responding to Peres’ defense of the Israeli attacks on Gaza, stated: "Maybe you [Peres] are feeling guilty and that is why you are so strong in your words. You killed people. I remember the children who died on beaches." He stormed out of the panel when the moderator tried to intervene during his response to Peres. Thousands of people extended a hero’s welcome to Erdogan when he returned to Istanbul, waving Turkish and Palestinian flags and shouting "Turkey is with you."

Erdogan’s attitude in Davos generated great sympathy in the Arab and Muslim world. Although his comments created some concern in Israel, high level officials on both sides recognized the value of good bilateral relations. Peres called Erdogan and said, "I am very sorry for what happened; friends can sometimes argue." Erdogan declared that he is against the Israeli government’s policies and not the Israeli people or Jews elsewhere. He pointed out that he had "always declared that anti-Semitism is a crime against humanity."

Turkey has gained strategic depth in the Middle East and ever-increasing support among Arabs and Iranians. Turkey acquired this position without posing a war threat to Israel. It maintains good relations with Israel while registering progress in its relations with the enemies of Israel in the region. Indeed, Turkey has access to and dialogue with all countries and important actors in the area. Turkey’s rising profile gives it an integral role in Middle East peace efforts. Erdogan will exploit his leverage over Hamas to transform that movement, reconcile Palestinian groups and prepare the groundwork for peace. Erdogan’s attitude toward Israel will be determined to a considerable extent by Israel’s response to his regional peace efforts.